Located in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia sits the impressive 372MW Ulu Jelai Hydroelectric Dam Project, which was commissioned in 2016 to help meet Malaysia’s demand for electrical power.
SMEC’s involvement in the project began over ten years ago when Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB), Malaysia’s Electrical Power Public Utility, engaged us to review an existing feasibility study carried out in 2004. Our investigations confirmed that the hydroelectric project was still a viable development option. SMEC was then engaged to undertake the detailed design, construction supervision and contract management for the implementation of the project.
Working in the tropical and isolated environment in the Cameron Highlands, located 140 kilometres north of Malaysia’s capital city, Kuala Lumpur, presented its own unique challenges. Building access roads to the dam site and tunnelling through 23 kilometres of rock was a challenging undertaking because of the remote location, the tropical climate and uncertain geological conditions, including deep weathering of the rock and fault lines.
Apart from the seven-kilometre-long power waterway, the project includes two weirs and two water transfer tunnels of 7.5 and 8.5 kilometres in length, which divert water to the main dam from the neighbouring Lemoi and Telom River catchments. The two water transfer tunnels contribute about 30% to the combined flow of water available for power generation, making the project economically viable. Tunnelling for the main power waterway and the two water transfer tunnels was challenging and required the team to apply creative problem-solving skills.
The 326 GWh annually generated energy contributes to Malaysia’s power supply system and helps to meet the surge in demand at peak hours
The entire complex is designed to make the most of the dam’s location in a narrow valley on the Bertam River. The reservoir, which has a surface area of 950,000 square metres and a storage capacity of 24 million cubic metres, is located 350 metres above the underground powerhouse, thus providing the head difference available for power generation before the water is released back into the Bertam River, about six kilometres downstream of the main dam.
Begun in 2011, the Ulu Jelai Hydroelectric Project is now complete but its impact on communities continues to be felt. The 326 GWh annually generated energy contributes to Malaysia’s power supply system and helps to meet the surge in demand at peak hours of the day in a country that has undergone a remarkable transformation in a matter of a few decades. The hydropower plant will also make the power grid more stable and less prone to frequency fluctuations.
The project also had residual impacts, with housing and infrastructure improvements to local communities in the area, boosting the local economy.
Like many hydroelectric projects, Ulu Jelai was a challenging feat of engineering requiring expertise in many different fields. Most of all, we had to respect the needs of local communities and work within the constraints of nature while constantly innovating to improve efficiency, sustainability and community benefits.
Community engagement and robust environmental studies were imperative to the project’s success. Some of the indigenous people native to the highlands were successfully relocated and now enjoy improved facilities, schools and sporting facilities. These outcomes were achieved through communication, negotiation and taking the time to truly understand the interests and concerns of all stakeholders.
Whilst our role went beyond engineering per se, it is all part and parcel of what we do and our commitment to make a lasting impact on communities and neighbourhoods through our work.